By Adam T. Kronfeld of Duff & Kronfeld, P.C. posted in Family Law on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.
For the longest time, this was one of the must frustratingly unanswerable questions in family law. If an engagement is broken off before a marriage is consummated, the law of divorce is completely inapplicable to the parties, and so concepts of marital property and separate property would not apply. Complicating matters, there is a law in Virginia known as the “heart balm statute” that says that one party cannot sue another for breaching a “promise to marry.” With essentially no direction from the higher courts in the Commonwealth, the law surrounding retention or return of engagement rings varied wildly (if it existed at all) from county to county. Some judges ruled that the courts were powerless to return the ring, some ruled that it must be returned, and some ruled that its return was dependent upon the reasons for the termination of the engagement.
Finally, on December 15, 2016, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a ruling that decided the matter conclusively. In that case McGrath v. Dockendorf, after “love yielded to litigation,” the Court was faced with an ended engagement and the question of who would retain the $26,000 engagement ring given by Dockendorf to McGrath. After considering the history of the “heart balm” statute and the body of law that had preceded it, the Court found that the giving of an engagement ring to a fiancée is a “conditional gift,” dependent upon a marriage later taking place, and that the gift is not truly “given” until the condition is met. Thus, although the ring was in the possession of McGrath for over a year during the course of the engagement, it remained the property of Dockendorf, so that when the relationship ended, McGrath was required to return it to him or pay him its value.
The McGrath decision is clear that the circumstances surrounding the end of the engagement are immaterial to the obligation to return the engagement ring. It is of no matter whether one of the two parties were unfaithful or was otherwise at “fault” for causing the termination of the relationship. As long as it is clear that a ring is given on the occasion of an engagement, the right of the recipient to retain it is conditioned on the marriage actually occurring, and if it is not, then the giver is entitled to receive it back.
If you would like to schedule a complimentary 30-minute consult, please call Duff Kronfeld & Marquardt P.C. at (703) 591-7475.